Paula and I have been living in France for fewer than 11 months, absorbing as much French culture as we possibly can, reveling in the differences and similarities we notice between France and New Orleans, our home for more than 40 years. One of the things we’ve learned is that there is a decidedly American way of entertaining, and we thought throwing a 4th of July party in Flavigny was the best way to share that.
When we were back in New Orleans in April, we bought a bunch of cheesy 4th of July decorations at Party City. And, it being France, we found plenty of red and blue napkins and plastic plates here at home.
Somewhere in the back of our minds, we had this number, between 25 and 30, as the likely size of our party. When we sat down to make the list, we started out, as you always do, with the people who meant enough to us that we really needed to invite them.
As we looked at the list, we were speechless. The number totaled more than 70. It was a revelation; less an invite list, more an inventory of how deeply we are already woven into the life of our little wine-soaked corner of France.
There was no way our little cottage could handle 70 people. So as we walked around the village hand-delivering the invitations, we quietly hoped that not everyone could come. We got 50 RSVPs. (Interesting side note: the French do not use the French acronym RSVP. You will never see it, or the spelled-out version, “Répondez s’il vous plait” on a French invitation.)
With invites out, we confronted our biggest challenge: French hot dogs. They’re skinny things, all made of pork, and no self-respecting vendor from Dodgers Stadium or a New Orleans Lucky Dog cart would be caught dead selling one.
Fortunately, my aunt was returning on July 3 for her annual month-long French interlude. So, we called her up in Colorado: “Maribeth, do you think you might smuggle 40 Nathan’s All-American 100% beef hot dogs into France in your checked luggage?” No problem, she said, ever the intrepid voyager.
We needed to chill beer, white wine and, of course, rosé, the preferred summer drink in these parts, almost all of it made in Provence, south of here. While the popularity of rosé has waxed and waned in the U.S. over the years, the French have spent every summer for centuries drinking barrels of the stuff. It’s excellent.
The problem: ice. Which is to say, in France it basically doesn’t exist. You can’t buy bags of ice in the grocery store. You can’t buy ice at your local ice house, because there’s no such thing. Refrigerators don’t have ice makers, and even if they did, there’s no place to store the ice because the fridges are much smaller than in America (because none of the food has preservatives – which is why you have to go to the store several times a week or else stuff goes bad.)
We asked Genest, the mayor pro-tem who also runs the village épicerie, where we could get a bunch of ice to cool our drinks. He said: Maybe Paris. I immediately flashed to an image of Paula and I streaking from Paris on the TGV, 25 kilos of bagged ice melting onto the train’s floor.
Does ice melt more quickly at 295 kilometers per hour? We weren’t going to find out. Time for some good old-fashioned American ingenuity. First, we procured the empty freezer of John and Lucy, the Australian classical musicians who aren’t in Flavigny this summer. Next, we started hoarding plastic bottles. In short order, we had 30 frozen bottles, artillery-sized projectiles of ice we could soak in water to make the drinks cold.
Here’s one thing that is true about the French: If they say they’re coming, they’re coming. All 50 people who said they were coming showed up, and several of them had asked if they could bring various visiting friends or relatives. Bring them all, we said, and we prepared for the onslaught.
By the appointed time, 5 p.m. on July 4, we had on hand the aforementioned 40 smuggled hot dogs, 65 hamburgers, 50 deviled eggs, four dozen chocolate chip cookies, vats of potato salad and coleslaw, six family-sized bags of Lays potato chips, sliced watermelon, six bottles of white, eight reds, 10 of rosé, two cases of beer, assorted soft drinks, sparkling water, and a groovy Spotify playlist of American classics.
To that our guests added a pasta salad, a tomato salad, a rhubarb tart, a pear tart, raspberry brownies and an American flag cake. Plus, 12 more bottles of wine or champagne, and a botanical garden’s worth of fresh flowers, plants, lavender and a few quite special gifts.
Genest, ever the comedian, arrived wearing a John Wayne-worthy white cowboy hat. He’s definitely one of the good guys. He and his wife Béné also brought us a framed photograph that includes three images from World War I-era Flavigny, when American troops bivouacked in the village and spent a cold, snowy winter waiting for the war to officially end. It’s a lovely gift, and a touching reminder of the deep historical connections between France and America.
There were other special gestures, from the large wood-mounted poster of a red Corvette on the very-American Route 66, to the guests who arrived waving small American flags, to the star-spangled red, white and blue canvas tennis shoes of Mélanie, our friend and village realtor who sold us our house. Mélanie said she had bought them that morning, just for the party.
Out on the deck, Berthold asked me and Rory, a friend from California, for a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, which we gladly delivered, going slightly off-key on the high notes – but what’s more American than a bad rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner?
There’s a kind of open-house, a-la-carte aspect to American 4th of July parties that the French find a little unfamiliar. So, as I delivered the first wave of burgers and dogs to the kitchen from our (newly acquired and assembled that morning) French barbecue grill, people sat or stood in groups, not wanting to start eating until someone declared that “eating time” had officially arrived.
Then our friend Eve, a French woman who spent at least two decades living in the U.S., fixed herself a hamburger, which seemed to inform the rest of the room that it was OK to belly up to the buffet and get to work. From that point, the party was off and running.
Maribeth had the idea of marking everyone’s red solo cups with their names – “C’est une BONNE idée,” marveled one guest. It not only saved on wasted cups, but also served as impromptu nametags. After the first few cups, the French guests seized the big black Sharpie from Paula and took over labeling duties.
By our count, there were in attendance citizens from France, America, Great Britain, Belgium, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Cuba and Finland. What made our home capable of handling 50 people, frankly, is that we have a deck that will hold maybe 10 of them at any one time, leaving the main room crowded but comfortable.
And that’s exactly how things worked out – right up until the last hot dog came off the grill, and the skies opened up with the first good old-fashioned giant summer thunderstorm since we arrived in Flavigny.
And guess what? The main room of our house WILL hold 50 people. With everyone huddled against the weather, the playlist kept on playing, the wine kept on flowing and the people kept on partying.
Nous allons devoir dormir ici, Genest said. We’re going to have to sleep here. At his mischievous threat, I simply recited an inventory of the remaining wine (still plenty), and used Google Translate to look up the French term for “slumber party.” A few intrepid souls stayed outside on the deck, under the umbrella, literally wrapping themselves in the American flag to keep warm against the chilly rain.
There was no political intent in the act. In fact, even though everyone in the room is deeply familiar with and concerned about what’s going on in America, and in the larger troubled world, there was an inherent sense that this celebration was about much more. In a way that Paula and I would describe as deeply New Orleanian, everyone was here to celebrate something bigger; the desire to live and love well.
As thunder shook the house and the rain pounded against the windows, Paula and I stood squeezed in a corner and beheld where life had brought us these past 11 months. Here we were among people hailing from 10 countries, filling our house to overflowing, eating the last crumbs of food, drinking well-chilled rosé, conversing in multiple languages, smiling and laughing and sharing fellowship across class and culture and religion and national borders.
The rain raged on, but the gathering storm seemed far away. And in that moment, in our medieval cottage in the French countryside, it felt like we might be able to hold it at bay forever.